Celebrating the gifts of the senior diaconate community

Forty years ago, Fred and Rita Reker were pioneers in the diaconate ministry. Rita stood inside her parish of St. John Cantius in St. Cloud and watched as Fred made promises to Bishop George Speltz and to the people of God during his ordination as one of the first permanent deacons in the diocese.

Celine and Deacon Andy Kunkel pray during the Mass before the gathering, (Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

Deacon Reker was one of three men in the very first class of deacons ordained June 2, 1978, alongside Deacon Kenneth Kruchten, now deceased, and Deacon Michael Keable, who currently resides in St. Joseph.

Deacons often are found on the peripheries — ministering to the sick, the dying, the poor, the elderly, the imprisoned. They have a special vocation, stemming from The Acts of the Apostles in the Bible when the apostles told the Christian community to select “seven reputable men, filled with the spirit and wisdom” to serve the community.

“There were many times Fred made a trip out in the evening, after hours, when someone was dying,” Rita recalled. “The family would want him to come. He would just be there with them. He held the hands of many sick and dying people.”

Although Deacon Reker passed away in 2012, Rita still feels a strong connection to the diaconate community that supported them — and who they supported — for all those years.

“One of the things — probably the only thing — I was really sure of after he died was that I wanted to continue being part of the deacon community. It had been such an important part of our lives,” Rita said. “I knew I wanted to continue to be a part of it.”

Deacons Tom Murray, left, and Jerry Theis laugh together after a gathering of the senior deacon community Aug. 30 at the Pastoral Center in St. Cloud. (Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

Rita recently attended a gathering of the senior deacon community — deacons who are 70-plus years of age, their spouses and the widows of deceased deacons. The event, hosted by Deacon Ernie Kociemba, diocesan director of the diaconate, and former director Deacon Vern Schmitz, was held Aug. 30 in St. Cloud. The day included Mass with Bishop Donald Kettler, lunch, conversation and a presentation on “Living Ageless in the Lord.”

In a welcome message, Deacon Kociemba told the group that they share a very special bond.

“You are part of a family, you are part of a very special community — a community that welcomed me when I came into it. You are a sign of charity, a symbol of service, a symbol of unity for Christ,” he said.

“I often think that, when you go out into the hospitals and nursing homes, into homes and jails, you think, ‘There is the face of Christ.’ But to them, you are the face of Christ, too. So as a result, we are all changed. As part of Christ’s body, we can never forget the grace of God that changes each of us,” he said.

Bishop Donald Kettler talks with Deacon Guy Beck after presenting him with a certificate for his years of service to the diaconate community. (Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

In his homily, Bishop Kettler added that, even though bodies and minds might be changing with age, retirement doesn’t change the call to holiness.

“We are all called to be holy, and you’ve done some hard work on that already,” he told them. “That journey, that work, doesn’t end until you go to heaven. The most important thing is that you are working on your holiness — with your spouse, with your families, and you’ve committed your lives to trying to help others reach holiness.”

About 25 people attended the event including Deacon Andy Kunkel and his wife, Celine, members of Holy Cross Church, Pearl Lake. Deacon Kunkel said he is the second oldest deacon in the diocese at age 92. Guests were invited to share their fondest memories of their years in ministry and what part of their ministry they were looking forward to in the future.

Deacon Kunkel said he most enjoyed his time “in jail,” serving in jail ministry for 30 years. Celine accompanied him in that ministry and also appreciated teaching religious education. Another highlight for Deacon Andy was officiating at his daughter’s wedding. The couple is looking forward to being a part of the marriage celebration of their grandniece this fall.

Ageless and timeless

The word “diaconate” comes from the Greek word “diakonia,” which means “service.”

Among their ministries, deacons proclaim the Gospel, can baptize, witness marriages, and conduct wake and funeral services.

“For all these years, not only the deacons but their spouses, have been involved in ministry work,” Deacon Kociemba said. “When you retire, you don’t just stop. If you stop, there can be a huge void. We want to give this group a new look at ministry in their next chapter of life, to let them know they are not forgotten and that they still have a community who supports them.

“We need you,” he said to them. “Our young people who are in formation or are discerning, need to hear your stories, your struggles, your experiences so they, too, can learn.”

Deacon Schmitz led a presentation inspired by “Living Ageless in the Lord,” a concept promoted by gerontologist Richard P. Johnson that highlights the role of faith in the aging process.

“Many of you are still active in parishes and communities but things are a little different,” he said. “As members of the deacon community over 70 years of age, at a time when many others our age are fishing or golfing, we understand that we are still very much focused on living our commitments as baptized Catholics and as ordained deacons … that mission doesn’t go away.”

During the conversation, many of the guests said their focus has “shifted gears,” some of them ministering to smaller groups, neighbors and family. But their mission has stayed the same — to bring others the message of Christ.

Deacon Schmitz left them with quotes to ponder, including one from Johnson: “If I believe that God is within me — this means that at my core I’m divine — and if so, I am ageless and timeless.”

About Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Visitor newspaper.

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